Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Christmas Day

Tustin, CA

Christmas morning. It's 6 am, and through the window in the upstairs shower, a gibbous moon still hangs in the preternatural dark, scudding along with the force of the Santa Anas.

The Santa Anas, the mythical wind of my mother's stories. Yesterday was as warm as animal's breath and calm as a well-fed child. Today, the wind whispers, rustles and whines. It hammers and drives, whistles and moans. It flaps the flag on the neighbor's garage, it harangues against the tree boughs, it frets the impudent delicacy of the palms. It sounds out the shingles and the gutters like a mouth on a harmonica. It buffets the walls and groans against the eaves, pushing eastward for the mountains.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Yes or Yes

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I came home last night, or rather, this morning. I had forgotten just how long that flight is when seen from the middle seat of row thirteen, four days before Christmas, eight hours past my bedtime and three hours out of my time zone. And then that luggage carousel chugs, dies, and chugs again, cluklunk-cluklunk-cuklunk, whhooze. It twists back on itself itself like a silverfish eating its tail, spitting out bag after bag that looks like mine - but isn't. A stranger, black stubble, open coat, tire belly casts me a conspiratorial grimance. I answer it. Aren't we, the long-suffering mass of holiday travelers, ill-treated by those invisible men hauling luggage at this hour? What are they doing? Having a smoke while my ride circles in the sedan? They're probably shaking the ashes onto my new blouse, rattling the Christmas presents. All this we know of each other in a glance, or mouths arched shut, our eyes full of an accustomed script. He turns away. 4 days before Christmas, reenacting the Gospel pilgrimage to the suburban outposts that pass for the land of our fathers, the cities of our tribes. Waiting for the luggage with the speechless irritation of Joseph at the innkeeper, with Mary wheezing on the donkey 4 centimeters dilated. And then it came. Bourne along on the scales of the silverfish. Cluklunk-cluklunk-cuklunk, next to a duffel bag and a scuffed vanity case, as breezy as a leaf in a rock-choked brook. A single white sheet of 8 x 11 paper, scrawled on it in eager capitals with a black permanent marker, this message: "Will you go out with me?" And below it two boxes - one for yes, and the other for yes. Whimsy dropping into commuter hell like the son of god into a wet-wool smelling cave. I stare. I feel an impulse to check a box. It goes around the corner, and I watch the fingers point and the taut faces relax in a smile, as though someone were walking by with a lit birthday cake. It is the smile of one's worries beaten back to size, once again the cheerful, adventurous asides in a romance of courtly love.

The son of God is here. The grace is here. The joy to the world that is more than you ever hoped it would be. The most hopeless optimist was never optimist enough. Yes or yes.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Quick Praise

No insomnia since October! Yay!

Friday, November 23, 2007

It Is Cold Outside of Boston (A Prayer for Helen)

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It is cold outside of Boston
And my breath hangs like a cloud
Like a fading moon of vapor
Rushing in, and rushing out

It is cold outside of Boston,
And the air, it smells like snow
And the sleep that I am losing
Is for things I cannot know

The leaves rain from the trees, so slow
Like upturned palms of praise
While the full moon laughs upon them
With a blessing in his gaze

And I wonder as I watch them,
As they rock down to the floor,
If it's only breath we're given
If it's breath - and not much more.
And what is in your breath, O God
That wakes a man from clay
And who are you that made a man
That loves to turn away?
Why can we not be like the leaves
And turn our palms in praise?
Why grant the choice of blessing
To a brief and flick'ring flame,
To a river that flows upward
To a son that jilts the Name?

It is cold outside of Boston
And the frost is on the ground
To freeze the sap within the bough
And sharpen every sound

On wintry nights like these I've heard
Your Spirit walks abroad
In search of hearts wherein
Still flows unfrozen love of God

Your heart, O mighty heart, my God
I wonder at its patience
At its loud, persistent knocking
At the love that charmed the ancients
That still, as though, untapped, untried
It looks for signs of life
In the wreckage of the Garden
In the scorched earth of our strife!
And while the breath that you once gave
Still in our breast does stir
May each heart that you made seek you
Ere that breath to You returns.

It is cold outside of Boston
Can I muster still a prayer?
While the grasping cold of winter
Strips the warmth from hearts and air?

Such questions now betray
That I little know of love
Of the love that made the cosmos
And sowed the stars above
Of the love that knew- that knew!
And what anguish in the knowing!
All the evil we would do
Saw the rivers ruddy flowing!
And still it said, "I'll make a man,
And make a woman, too."
Is a thing that only madmen
Or the love of God might do.

It is cold outside of Boston
And I tremble like the leaves
Though whether from the cold or
Something else, none but God sees.

And I break tonight from one thing
While my breath goes out and in:
With the burden of the choice I make
And every human being.
I can't choose for another
Can I choose it for myself?
Can I let you own me truly
Take your grace down from the shelf?
I'm bent, will you still lift me?
Will you make me straight again?
And strip my heart of all its weight
And all unnatr'l dread?
I need help just to trust you -
It takes grace just to fall
Into the arms of mercy
And on your name to call.

It is cold outside of Boston
Heaven's ardor yet is burning
It is cold outside of Boston
And some heart, please God, is turning.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

A Few of my Favorite Things

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I have a secret.

I love the Sound of Music. You remember that scene where Mother Superior and Sister Margareta are arguing over whether Sister Maria is more of a flibbertyjibbet or a will-of-the-wisp? I think it's hysterical. And that scene where the kids are hanging out of the trees like a troop of gibbons while the Captain and the Baroness drive by? I bristle in indignation at that primping usurper of domestic felicity. And that youngest daughter? Cutest thing ever! I love it all, except for that scene where the oldest Van Trapp daughter squeals like a piglet at the chopping block to express her admiration for Franz, the priggish Austrian Nazi. I, and the whole world, could have gone without that moment in cinematic history. Poorly done love scenes aside, I am a fan, and on rainy days, I am more likely than the average person to be humming drivel about rain drops on roses and whiskers on kittens.

Without further prelude, on this rainy week in DC, here are a few of my favorite things:

1) Getting letters from foreign countries. No one can argue (and if they would, shame on them!) that getting a letter marked Par Avion with a strange stamp sent from a Rue or a Straat or an Avenida is not better than an e-mail.

2) Old stone churches with stained glass windows, architecture and imagery that does not forget that the traffic through the soul's windows flows in two directions.

3) Cuddling babies, particularly my nephew

4) Taking the concept of cooking from scratch to the extreme. If I could find a way to mill my own flour, I probably would, but so far, I've run into some insurmountable logistical problems.

5) I can walk away from woodwinds, piano, and brass but I will always stop to listen to anything with strings.

6) Rocking chairs on wrap-around porches while a summer rain falls

7) The painting of the Repentance of the Magdalene now hanging in the National Gallery of Art - it steals my breath away.

8) Running fast and far, along a river, in the woods, by the sea

9) "Aha!" moments

10) Reading aloud

I have often wondered why I like The Sound of Music. I usually don't succumb to the saccharine, but I think I've finally figured it out. The Sound of Music is a schoolgirl's tender manifesto, an affirmation of God, family, and human kindness presented to a world that his witnessed the most obscene betrayals of these things. The appropriate note to hit would be one of somber cynicism, and instead we get "Doe, a deer, a female deer, ray, a drop of golden sun, me, a name to call myself, and fa, a long, long way to run." Sometimes optimism is a fool's retreat, like when Neville Chamberlain promised the world "peace in our time" after abandoning Czechoslovakia to the dubious mercy of the Reich; and sometimes, optimism is an act of supreme valor.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Dust and Diamonds

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Sorry for the long hiatus. The road was long that wound between Nashville and Houston and San Francisco. It is good to be back with you, and to be home.

Part of growing up is realizing that one's parents are people, like any others, not heroes or tyrants, but only people with excellent intentions, a few talents, a few flaws, some ambitions both too grand and too small to find a meaningful fruition. Like I said, just people.

But if part of growing up is learning to live with your parents' humanity, part of growing old is learning to live with your own. Let me speak frankly - with my own. Do you know what a mess of dust and diamonds is crammed under my skin? Perhaps it is easier for you to know, to understand, than it is for me. Perhaps that inward vision is the least focused of all.

First the dust.

Hearing daily the work that IJM does, living on a planet that might be slowly roasting, turning anguished eyes away from that last bomb to blow in some country I will never go to, I feel surprise at almost no depravity the human mind can devise, no calamiy that we can visit upon ourselves. That is horrific, but there it is. But I keep a reserve of shock at my own capacity for pettiness, vindictiveness, baseless fear, for gossip and grumbling, and every sin that starts with self-. It, too, is horrific, but there I am. I am not the first to know it of themselves; I shall not be the last.

Now the diamonds.

There it is, still, sputtering in the dark, that divine spark that will not be expatiated. That dream of a dream of heaven that goads me on in the soul's dark night. That echo of an eternal footfall. And if for the dust I bent my head, for this unaccountable splendour I lift it up again. For music and joy, for goodwill and forgiveness, for Rembrandt and Vivaldi and Fielding and even for Tolstoy, I cannot help but lift it again. At our best, we are none of heaven's angels; at our worst, no fiends of hell. No poetic device, in the end, can skip around the fact: we have only ever been men and women, who know what we might be, but are not! what the creation might be, but is not! Why else do you think we laugh and cry (which are in the end, the same thing) - in both, our clay bodies shudder with the gap. A sob and a chuckle are Eden's aftershocks.

It is difficult (I might dare call it the greatest challenge of knowing) to span, quitely simply, what we are, this dust and diamonds, to live in a world, to inhabit a self, that occasions both deep despair and impossible hope. We have arrived (where else?) at a mystery, at Incarnation. Divine spark and indwelt earth.

Jesus came to save us from our sins. That is true. Jesus came to fulfill God's promise to Abraham and all his descendents. That is also true. But I would like to add one more reason to the catechism. Did he not also come to solve the riddle, to be more dust than any son of earth, and to be, with the same breath, the Divine of Divines? To be, while walking down our streets that , sleeping in our houses, eating our bread, the Living return all of all we thought was lost, to show not only who is God, but what a man or a woman was made to be, and glorious hope! he shall yet make to be? Oh, I hope so, I long so, but words, be they many or few, fail the intensity of such a thing.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Who Needs Sleep

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When I was in high school, the charmingly named Barenaked Ladies came out with a peppy little song about insomnia, called "Who Needs Sleep?" If you're curious, you can find the complete lyrics here: http://www.azlyrics.com/lyrics/barenakedladies/whoneedssleep.html.

At 16, I took it as a sort of anthem. I've never been sure why people look back on high school as the finest years of their lives. For me, it was a Nascar whiplash experience, a sprint from event to event. On any given morning, I would wake up before dawn, shower, eat some oatmeal, finish writing a paper, then off to class at 7:30 am. I usually parked about half a mile away fifteen minutes before that first bell, and I learned that I could speedwalk exactly that distance in heels with a 20-lb backpack and not be late for roll call. Then came the 7-period marathon, on a campus so generously proportioned that, if the lecture ran long, I arrived at the next period considerably out of breath. I almost never paid attention in class, but usually because I was doing homework for the next period, knowing that I could make up the material out of the textbook later. And so went the day . . . an English paper written during Spanish, a chemistry lab completed during art, Spanish homework finished off during Algebra II. At lunch, it was off to the art room to finish a drawing, or perhaps to the library to type and print that essay. After school, I would dash to the gym to change for cross country practice, or depending on the time of year, go for a solo run before my shift at the House of Bread (My mother, with her smattering of high school French, liked to call if the House of Pain). Depending on the day of the week, next came a tri-weekly babysitting gig or a youth group triple-decker: internship + discipleship group + small group/Jr High group. At the end of all this, now hours after dark, I would drive home and drip into the kitchen to pick at some left-over crockpot meat, or perhaps some cold spaghetti. An hour of two of homework, then, saying goodnight to whoever else might still be awake, it was off for a few hours of black, dreamless sleep until the alarm recommenced its morning assault.

Sleep-deprived as I was then, I could always fall asleep when the opportunity presented itself. Once, on a missions trip to Costa Rica, I passed out cold facedown on a pine-slat bench barely a foot wide. It was in college that the insomnia hit. It's never left.

I'm never sure what makes it happen, but all at once it's 4 am, and I finally push back the covers to see if I can make something of this unwanted wakefulness.

Last Monday, right before the Nashville benefit dinner, it struck two nights in a row. The first morning, I felt the same as I always do - nauseated, disoriented, slightly inconherent. Afterwards, normalcy, followed in the afternoon by a prolonged period of furious yawning. It's the first evening that things get fun.

Around 6 o'clock, I entered a zone of hyper-alertness, as though every synapse were sparking in a mental fireworks finale. I felt quiet, but my mind raced, incisive and insightful, readily (though dizzily) recalling every detail of the day in intense, genial mushrooms of full-formed lyrical prose. And I recalled how much of my life I have lived on this precipice between performance and collapse. I am comfortable here. I trust it - far more than I ought to, probably . . . as was aptly demonstrated when I appeared at the headquarters of the Washington Post for our class tour, not just seven minutes early, as I thought, but seven days. Did I mention that I also wrote my essay on the wrong publication?

I walked on to the Johns Hopkins Dupont Circle campus, entered apologetically, and sat down to listen to the lecture. I had entered the next phase, something I like to call conscious coma. I was awake, aware of everything going on around me, but my short-term memory had short-circuited. I watched the professor's mouth move and struggled to match his utterances with meaningful words. It took an intense effort to follow simple progressions of the topic. I remember blinking a lot, and smiling too brightly, hoping to hide my dropping IQ and dropping eye-lids.

At 9, the class adjourned and I went home. As soon as I lay down in the dark, however, my brain started to rattle again, like a chimp in cage. I finally dropped off around 4 am on Wednesday morning.

It happens about once a week. The longest it's gone on is about 60 hours, but I've read of someone who, after waking from a prolonged coma, stayed awake for the next 20 years. Poor soul.

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Poems for Jesus: #4, A Day of Sacraments

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I get up in the morning, pull back the bedclothes
And I think of how you rose from slumbering death,
To leave the linens folded in the tomb.

I step into the shower, turn the water scalding
And I think of how you wash my feet,
And every part

I get on the bus and pay the fare, five quarters in a slot
And I think of how you've bought me with your own blood
Calvary's currency

I eat my lunch, some lentil soup, a bit of bread
And I think of how you laid your body down
The bread broken, the wine poured out

We stop our work to pause and pray
I think of what I've heard you say
Where two or more are gathered

I pedal up Columbia Hill, breaking in a sweat
And I think how you went up on a donkey's back,
with cheers
And later with a crossbeam on your own,
with jeers

I look out at the stars studding your great black sky
And I think you were there when each one found its place
Its wheel on which to spin

I lay down again in my own narrow bed,
For sleep's refreshment
And I think of how, oh someday soon in the span of time, Jesus,
I will wake up for the first time, when you wake me.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

If a golf course maintenance worker answers my cell phone . . .

That's only because the last and most notably creative place I decided to lose my cell phone was on the green of a golf course in Sterling.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Lesson from an Egret

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Algonkian Regional Park
Loudon County, Virginia

The Potomac loafs along beside me, a river without appointments to keep. In the woods, a crow protests indignantly. A man's voice crosses the water from three orange canoes. It's clearly Spanish, though the words are indistinct. Next a woman answers him with a voice like a vigorous fountain, its qualities magnified where its meaning is lost. An ember-bright leaf pirouettes in an eddy. The canoes round a bend and are gone. The air smells greenly of damp.

And still the egret stands like a statue of a bird, and not a real bird at all. He makes me think of a tall, gaunt wizard from a fairy tale, with a gray cloak and a nose of perposterous length. Fifteen minutes ago, he careened from the bank, beating his great, pinioned wings against the air like two silken battering rams, across the dazed black reflection of the trees on the Maryland shore. He came to rest on a shelf of rock, and there froze, unruffled as a photograph. He waited, ever so long, while I watched him peer into the mellow current.

At once he stirs and steps into the water, wading with imperial self-possession on his three-pronged, dragonish feet. The water could not tremble less at the passage of his stilt legs as he stalks his supper. His neck arches like the bending of a lithe bow, one of a piece with the snapping arrow of his beak. He gives a loud cry with no music in it, a squawk like a startled old man, a sound I must take for egret joy. He uncoils his neck. Like an idea in motion, too quick for my sight, he plunges his dark head into the flow and pulls it back with a writhing fish.

I want to be more like the egret, with the patience to be still without exhaustion, to never mind the idle currents or be dazzled by the glamour of light on water; but, knowing the good thing I wait for, to coil my hope in constant readiness, and to act in brave certitude when it comes.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Hello, Old Friend

I remember this feeling, these smells, but they creep over me with a fresh joy: the cool, corrupted scent of leaves and earth, the starched crispness of the air, like a glass of ice tea after the long, langurous day that was the summer.

I remember this feeling, and it binds me to itself and all of its memories: the eyes sneaking downward to close, the limbs dull and spent, the mind wandering, staggering down blind alleys of thought, the sleep that is never quite as much as I would have liked -- or needed, the exhaustion that is somehow sweet and thrilling.

What can I say to it, but "Hello, old friend"?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Conclusion: The Curse of the Hall of Nations

I crossed the lush red carpet and followed the sound, faint but growing, of a crooner cradling the microphone in his fat brown palms. None of my friends had arrived. I stuffed my purse under some ivy in a planter and wove my way through the spectators, limping every so slightly.

I milled on the edge, near the band, where the good dancers find their partners. I tapped my toes, trying at once to look nonchalant and eager to dance, tossing my gaze and reeling it back in like a fly fisherman, waiting for the first WWII veteran or gawky college freshman to ask me to the floor. After three dances, my foot was hurting considerably, but I paid it little heed; it was an annoyance.

Meg arrived, and we danced together for a bit. She continues to be the best male lead east of the Mississippi, and, when she returns to England soon, the best one east of the Atlantic. She obligingly spun me around a bit, but my shoe fell off in the middle of the song. I bent down to put it back on, and realized that something was very wrong.

My toe was the color of a Japanese eggplant. It was so entirely unexpected that I stared at it for a while, like a botanist considering a startling purple orchid. Then I connected the pain in my foot with this arresting visual, and I decided I had better sit down.

I hobbled over to a planter and sat down on the edge to enjoy the music. A female security guard made me move, so I hobbled a bit further, fished my purse from the sea of ivy, and pondered what to do next. Brandi and Aaron were there, too. Brandi, seven months pregnant, was not about to dance, so she fetched me a cup of ice from the bar. I balanced a cube on my toe and hoped, rather than believed, that it would help matters.

Meg returned to the floor, and I listened piningly to the next few songs. Bethany arrived with Brian, and after admiring the new pigmentation of my broken digit, they went off to dance as well. That did it.

I put my shoes back on, headed gingerly back to the edge of the crowd, and danced until the band went home.

I paid for it later. The rest of the weekend I spent glued to the couch with my foot elevated and wrapped in white gauze, though I avoided the doctor's office. (It's hard to get me into the emergency room unless loss of life is imminent.)It was worth it. And besides, I got rested.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Pair of Mirrors

In honor of class starting this week, here is the essay I submitted with my grad school application. No subject seems to be as inexhaustible as writing about writing, like the vanishing horizons in a pair of mirrors staring at each other . . .

What I read these days seems to matter less than where I read it. I have felt aware that my context, from my physical location to my mental state to that day’s headline in the Washington Post, lays half the foundation for meaning. If I read God on the Dock, collected essays by C.S. Lewis, in the aisle of Borders, it rings with Lewis’s wit and integrity of thought. If I read it in the middle of the Shenandoah Wilderness, ten miles from anything else that goes on two legs, in a tent by a river on a night of bitter Feburary cold, and the tent has sepulchral dimensions as I lie in the embalming warmth that my body radiates, and if I read by the light of a lamp that I wear on my head like a coal miner, than I clutch at the words in the pale blue orb of my headlamp. They become a cup of reason and thick-blooded humanness against the freezing dark.

And if I read Orwell’s “The Politics of the English Language” in my bedroom, still lodged in the agony of pantyhose but too weary to extricate myself, if I have spent all day reading memorandums in the garbled, bloodless English of business, then I soak in the words as in a steaming bath, and rejoice to find someone defending the English language. Someone needs to speak for the lovely and subtle words that are every day badgered and molested, kidnapped, assassinated and forced to misrepresent themselves. I say the following not to demean faith, but in acknowledgment of the power of language: Orwell is to the English language as Moses was to the Hebrew religion. His five pragmatic rules about language, our medium of meaning, guard it from the sacrileges that the novice writer itches to inflict, as surely as the Ten Commandments sought to hedge the Hebrew faith, the repository of Judaic meaning, from Canaan’s diluting influence.

I have often transgressed Orwell’s code. “Pretentious diction.” “Dying metaphors.” “Verbal false limbs.” “Staleness of imagery.” “Lack of precision.” I fell back on these sloppy faults many times in high school and college to camouflage any lack of understanding. To be frank, I was taught to do so. What you lack in original thought, make up in complex sentence structure. If the College Board readers are in a hurry, and we all knew that they were, they might mistake our inflated vocabulary and token classical references for actual insight. They did. But some writing was always about more that academic survival. It was about the man on the beach who, after an epileptic fit, drowned in two inches of water while we watched the lifeguards fail to revive him. It was about the vine-choked mountain behind my house where I contracted poison ivy – three times – and could not stop climbing it. It was, for a hormone-saturated interval, about my selfish and torrid fits of despair. Mostly, It was about was the parable that seemed to underlie everything I saw and to glue together its disparate shards. The literary chicaneries I had acquired only muddied such thoughts.

Some things we do out of love. Some things we do because we are forced to do them. Others, we do out of mindless ease from birth, and whether they become a joy or a drudgery depends on whether we tune the skill. We all breathe, but most of us draw quick, shallow, oxygen-poor sips of air. Only a few widen their lungs like inflating balloons to take sensuous gulps of atmosphere.

By the time I was eight, in an act that sealed my fate, I had begun reading books without pictures. In the summer after fourth grade, I swallowed volumes of Dickens (It gave me marvelous hangovers) and L.M. Montgomery. I stole my older sister’s assigned school readings and secreted them to my bedroom. I read the encyclopedia, starting with aardvarks. The contours of fiction blurred so that sometimes, the character in a book slipped into my bedtime prayers. Good reading has been my most intensive, useful, and unrelenting instruction in good writing. Writing at home was its own experimental education. I wrote gushy poems about kittens and morbid short stories about car accidents and comas. I recreated the styles and plots of my favorite authors (some uncharitable playmates put me on trial for “plaigarism” during recess.) I wrote stories and poems as birthday presents. This worked out well, since I had no income and my mother seemed to think it was charming. I wrote plenty of sentimental excrement that ought to made into a towering bonfire, but some things turned out well. When I entered eighth grade, my English teacher presented me with an ultimatum – either I would write the school play for that year, or we would put on a production of Pinocchio. I hate Pinocchio, and that was that.

As my education became more formal, I picked up the bad habits I still have to think about avoiding. But I kept pursuing writing, and I kept knowing that I would, someday, somehow, be a writer, however foggily I understood what it meant. Sometimes, I felt more as though writing pursued me. I took an internship at a bank in San Francisco that hired me to do 5,000 lines of data entry into an Excel spreadsheet. By the end of the summer, I was writing articles about commercial real estate banking for the company website.

I majored in English at Georgetown university. I took courses like Non-fiction as a Literary Form, Scriptwriting, Screenwriting, Advanced Non-fiction Writing Seminar. I also took a writing course in Italy called “Writing Italy” through Georgetown’s study abroad program at Villa Le Balze in Florence, Italy. I had a professor who made me rewrite the lyrics to Cole Porter songs, just to teach me about the importance of rhythm, and another who played recordings of Dadaist poetry just to convey the emotional punch of pure sound.

All the electrical wiring and light bulbs in the world are useless, unless someone flips the switch. In acquiring the machinery of a writer’s craft, the arsenal of rhetorical devices, I had wandered from that underlying parable, those beguiling disparate shards glued together. Degree in hand, I needed something to write about. I needed something to flip the switch.

When my father told me that he had Lou Gherig’s disease, I started a blog to keep from the jagged edge of insanity. All death is hard, but Lou Gherig’s is a master at inflicting human suffering, a virtuoso disease. His flesh seemed to melt into the ether as if an invisible spider feasted on his limbs. I wrote him “The Moon Song” to say good-bye him, but also to transfuse my blood into his veins.

When I traveled to Greece, Albania, and Macedonia with an NGO, the Greek director told me about the need for doctors, teachers, engineers, and human rights activtists, I paused. I cannot set a bone. I cannot teach a class, build road, or lobby the United Nations. My sparkly liberal arts education looked all at once dull and unwieldly. In the van between border checks, the director told her stories, stories that died maddeningly into the air as I listened, stories that mattered – cynicism be damned. Here was a problem I could do something about. We decided to write a book together. On the side, I am writing that book, writing articles for a start-up magazine, and still blogging, though I spend my professional life trying to pump an aesthetic soul into e-mails and survey reports.

I have written a little bit of everything, from Dadaist imitations to those commercial real estate articles, but the longer I go, the more creative or literary nonfiction draws me like a paper clip to a magnet. I love this genre because it is about the intersection of fact and soul, that parable written into and with and through the slipshod world. To discover it is like hearing the secret message when you play an album backwards. Creative nonfiction, done well, straddles the abstract and the earth, telling us the profound things with tangible elements. Human beings, clothed in flesh, compound sight and belief. If you tell a man about existential loneliness, he will nod politely; if you tell him something he can feel in his bones, like staring at the stars winking in the infinite cold, and feeling the indifference of the universe to his termite life, then he may understand what you mean.

That difference is vital. So many people grind out numb lives. A grand story is washing over us and we are missing it, daily and tragically. It is the stories we miss that transfix me. It must have started with my great-grandmother locked away in a nursing home. She was little more than bones with the flesh shrunken greedily back into her core, but she had so many stories. Unbelievable stories. It was like picking blackberries from a vine in July. They fell off. If we knew those stories, knew how to tell them and listen to them, we might be a little more awake, a little more clear, a little more human. And because they are true, they compel us.

My aspirations as a grad student are: 1) to have the opportunity to grow as a writer by being intelligently criticized (My support base has always been wildly enthusiastic, but irreparably blinded by genetic affinity.) 2) to keep writing! I think about writing and I talk about writing, but sometimes, between a full-time job and cooking myself meals and vacuuming the cat hair off the furniture, it’s hard to sit down and do it. I am afraid that if I let the muscles sit idle for too long, writing will become the road that diverged in the yellow wood that I did not take. 3) to work on this whole thing of becoming a “writer” that is, being published (that intimidating “p” word) and having “clips” and a “portfolio,” working with pitches and deadlines and editors and innumerable drafts.

As a writer, I would like to do freelance work of all kinds of nonfiction, essays, memoir, biography, travel, literary journalism, and creative nonfiction. I love the research component that inherently goes into such pieces. But even if I am never published, that Shangri-La and Holy Grail wrapped into one for writers, there is, as Orwell impressed, an inherent gift for those who master the thoughtful use of language. To write clearly, to do without the “prefabricated henhouses” of first resort in the English language, is the first step towards thinking clearly, about myself and my world.

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Why Not to Write Thank-You Notes, or The Curse of the Hall of Nations

I don't like vacations very much. Oh, I'm as glad as anyone when the Office of Personnel Management (the august body that determines government snow days) decides that a quarter inch of sugary snow should shut everything down. But actual inactivity (otherwise termed rest) I usually find quite repulsive. Which is why, I think, God let me break my toe.

Once a year, on a Saturday evening in early September, the Kennedy Center hosts a free evening of swing dancing on the River Terrace. To my great chagrin, and to my discredit as a professed aficionado, I had not been swing dancing since I moved. I leapt at this opportunity to hear the Tom Cunningham Orchestra. I plyed my friends for weeks with the absolute necessity of joining me. I compared the twirling virtues of this skirt and that.

Then, this past Saturday, I wrote a thank-you note and went barefoot to the mailbox. I have one incurable habit inculcated by twenty years of West Coast living - I think shoes a great evil. On my way, I stubbed my toe. It smarted something awful, but so do all stubbed toes. I walked it off, dropped my letter in the box, and returned to the apartment. I showered and dressed in a brown, flouncy skirt that seems to induce a sashay in my steps. The evening was fine, so I set out to walk to the Kennedy Center just across the river, a distance of some 3 or 4 miles. By the time I got there, my foot was rather sore where I had stubbed it, but I didn't think too much about it. The river, a great blackness spangled with lantern light, lay like a mirror perpetually in the act of being shattered. The mild air begged to atone for summer's retreating brutality. And the music floated to me across the Hall of Nations.

I entered the great Hall of Nations, and I passed the memorial Margaret Zellers water fountain, where in September 2004, the last year that I came, Meg passed out with unbearable abdominal pain after the closing Lindy Hop. I spent the remainder of that evening with an incoming freshman, whose name I do not remember now, at Meg's bedside at the George Washington Hopsital urgent care, where we had all gone as a merry party in an ambulance.

To be continued . . .

Monday, August 27, 2007

From across the pond

Day passes day, and the leaves of certain trees exhale into yellow, having bottled up the sun so long that they begin to resemble him.

Meg, a long, lost housemate of mine, from the days of Burleith and the melanistically-divergent (to reach for a PC term) black squirrels, is in Arlington awaiting funding for her PhD program at Cambridge. She is doing something eminently brilliant regarding psycholinguistics and phonology, but there is some sort of hang-up with the European Union, and she has returned to the States until the fog lifts.

She came to dinner at the apartment on Saturday, and we ought to have gone swing-dancing, but Bethany roped Brian into helping someone move a free piano off of Craig's List from Mt. Pleasant to Anacostia in a hair-lifting thunderstorm with a U-Haul truck that wouldn't start. Needless to say, dancing was out, so we ate chicken kabob from down the street and played Settlers of Catan until the blackest hours of the morning. If anyone ever discovers a perfectly octagonal lost island continent composed of miraculously equal parts brick, ore, pastureland, forests and wheatfields, I will be prepared. It's a tremendous load off my mind.

Telling me all about Cambridge, Meg has half convinced me to move to that sinking star of an imperial age, a place where nearly everyone drinks copious amounts of tea and goes on holiday instead of on vacation.

If it did not suggest an egregious oversight on the part of my Maker, I would swear that I had been born on the wrong continent, and most definitely in the wrong decade. Judging almost entirely, I will admit, from literary fixation (Oh, Inklings, how I would have loved to have met you!), I ought to have been born in England right around 1920.

Still, I expressed to Meg that it would be foolhardy to try to compensate and do a major life move on the basis of pure literary fascination.

"That's what I did," she answered to my surprise, "And it's worked out great for me."

I am not really about to jump the Pond, but if there is a young gentleman reader out there from the UK, preferably over six feet and with a cozy cottage outside Oxford (thatching optional), you're more than halfway home so far as I'm concerned.

In the absence of ready excuses (not to mention ready monies) to pack it off for Heathrow, I've been downloading free audiobooks in the public domain of Chesteron's detective stories. I play them while I drift in the borderland between sleeping and waking. Marvelous. I was listening to one the other day, and was startled to hear the main character (generally a likable bloke) launch into an anti-Semitic rant. I winced and listened with growing horror, feeling as though a cockroach had just settled down next to me on the couch.

I did a bit of research on Chesteron and found, to my chagrin, that he did indeed partake of the prejudices incumbent on his religion (Catholic), his race (white as the snow on London), and his era (pre-Nazi and pre-political correctness). Chesterton's anti-Semitism has contributed to his being less touted by critics than his genius might otherwise merit. And I, with the partial Jewish blood running suddenly white-hot in my veins, have to decide whether I will similarly drop him like a burning cinder. It is indeed tragic that one who loved the Man of Men should not have come close enough to see how terribly Jewish he looks, and I do not doubt that once in the throne room, Mr. Chesterton wished many grievous things unwritten and unsaid; but, I have never enjoyed the words of any author but that his sins, public or private, were terrible things, and if Mr. Chesteron had been a gluttonous adulterer who neglected the poor, few of these critics would have had anything to say about it. So I will go on listening to the adventures of Father Brown, cringing against the reappearance of that snake in the garden, and remember that it is a terrible thing for even great thinkers not to think their thoughts to the end.

Monday, August 20, 2007

A Momentary Lapse of Wakefulness

I was entirely too lazy to phone in sick to the office this morning, because that would have required extricating myself from this quilt and getting off the couch. No, no, an e-mail would do the trick very nicely. For that I had only to sit upright. Having woken up this morning with that blurry sense of impending doom that marks a bacterial invasion of one's respiratory tract, I took a Tylenol PM and have been floating on fluffy clouds of self-forgetfulness. Every now and then, I stir for a glass of water or a bite of food, though there's not much to be had. I decided to make myself a loaf of fresh whole wheat bread, but then discovered only enough yeast for one generously portioned dinner roll. During this, my second momentary lapse of wakefulness, I collected the sum contents of my refrigerator, a host of quailing vegetables, and sent them to their watery grave in a large steel pot. I don't suppose the resulting morass will have much nutritional content, the vegetables having the constitution of melted rubber, and it will probably taste like something foul, since, in an unholy hour, I bought an entire bag of pre-chopped kale, which is never appetizing even under the best of circumstances, but there is something primeval about the need for steaming hot liquid with salutory pretensions on such a day as today.

Monday, August 13, 2007

DC Moments #1: Air Force Memorial

The moon, the sun
The bad men, the good men,
The indifferent
And the August stars that bridge their gravity
All Sleep
In this abandoned hour

But I -

I sit and love the pewter sky
(Beneath these vicious arms,
The flyers' shifting cathedral with dome uncapped
Indivisible space
As grave-courtesy demanded)

Love her for the red and stillborn dawn
She might
Still bear in arms of mutinous cloud
To me, a pigeon, a church bell clamoring

While all the dreaming world
Held hostage, naked in a crowd, taking tea with the deceased
Who oddly enough resist decomposition
Transfixed in reveries and night terrors
That no deadbolt hindered even,
Lies at my feet unclaimed
The city of no man (no moon!) no star in August pining for a darker sky
And sleeps a little more

Monday, August 6, 2007


I visited my old blog tonight to find it riddled with fake comments that advertisers often plant, filled with links to male enhancement and financial scams. It felt like visiting a house where I once lived, only to find the roof caving in and graffiti on the walls. It doesn't matter.

It reminded me of how I started to write and why. It was six days after he died, and I did it to stay sane, because sorrow under pressure is the door to a dark room. Sometimes I don't like to remember. Sometimes I do, and it nestles around me, a familiar, brooding dysphoria, a plucking at the tearducts, predictable and therefore harmless. I have been here before; it makes me write. It would be better, healthier, to sleep, but I know that I won't. This, too, is familiar.

I once believed that grief for a person goes away. It does not. It lives while I live, self-regenerative, like skin, but peeling and aging in its incessant evolution. A random wound finds it there, not so easily disturbed, but as torrid and tender.

I will attend my first class at Hopkins on September 4. That might account for all of this, by which I mean, all the self-vexing cross-examination I have been doing about writing. The prospect of a writer's life, the criticism, rejection, and uncertainty, takes soundings of my deepest fears. I have also wondered whether it's the best use of time. How do I love my neighbor, living such a solitary, cerebral existence? It might be worth it if I could write like Lewis. The Problem of Pain is the one honest book I have ever read about grief, and it was like the wordless embrace of an intimate friend. But if I can't? If I fumble around in the dark for a while, making manuscripts that never slide into anyone's hand? What then? It feels as though there would be nothing left.

That is why is I sometimes like to remember, with bewildered gratitude, that even if I am or were awful at it, writing is my imperative. (Do I, can I believe that?) Where it leads is less of my concern.

I did not remember until just now that today is my birthday.


Hi, readers! I put all the previous posts in one place. Also, I added a big chunk to the end.


If you have a perverse hankering to head for the hottest, driest, lowest place in Norh America, if the name itself doesn't turn you off and if your steering wheel doesn't give you third degree burns, you can drive to Death Valley, California, where the daytime temperature is a brain-addling 114 degrees from May to September. Welcome to the untrodden interior of the Golden State, a day's hard driving from the fog-cooled Napa vineyards and the built-up Malibu beaches, along arrow-straight highways that pass nothing and go, it seems, to nowhere. In these vast spaces, Mother Nature's microwave, the Spaniards decided to call it Cali ("hot") forno ("oven") and sensibly built their missions along the coast. It's here that the Gold Rush began. It's here that Central Valley farmers, cultivating an agricultural plateau the size of England, grow 25% of produce that Americans consume. It's a land of surprise and paradox. You'll find accents indistinguishable from the Okie farming forebears. You'll find islands of walled suburban paradise, surrounded by acres of almond groves, in anticipation of future development. And 72 miles from Death Valley, the lowest point in North America, you'll find Mt. Whitney, the highest peak in the Lower 48, lord of the John Muir Wilderness, king in a land of giants.

Last winter, I decided to climb Mt. Whitney as part of an even grander expedition: to trek solo along the 212-mile John Muir Trail. Hewn from some of the country's most unforgiving terrain, the John Muir Trail is an extraordinary undertaking. I am not an extraordinary athlete. I am the weak link of the IJM softball team; when our receptionist swam the Chesapeake Bay, I wondered quietly how far I would make it before sinking to the silty delta depths. Not far, I'd wager. But backpacking is less about physical prowess than a high threshold for absurd wilderness discomfitures - the ability to sleep on a rock, bathe in a snowmelt creek, slap a bandage on your blistered feet, shove them back in your boots, and keep marching. That sort of thing doesn't bother me. I bought a map and I never looked back.


If you attempt a long car trip without a good map, you mind wind up missing your turnoff. If you attempt a wilderness trek without a good map, you might wind up dead. A reliable plotting of A to B is indispensable. Somewhere in San Rafael, California, Tom Harrison, geographic guru and aficionado of California's unpeopled places, churns out full-color, shaded-relief topographical maps on his Macintosh computer. Single-handedly, Harrison has made himself into the trail standard. At a poorly-marked junction, it's not unknown for hikers to invoke his maps like holy writ.

It takes no fewer than thireen pages of waterproof, tear-resistant Harrison maps to chart out the entire John Muir Trail. Starting near the town of Lone Pine, at the Whitney Portal, the JMT strikes boldly west with bright red dashes, then joins the Pacific Crest Trail for its northbound route towards Canada, breaking off at Happy Isles in the Yosemite Valley. For all of its ambitious length, the JMT does not cross a single stab at civilization more ambitious than a ranger's hut. It is the longest such stretch along the PCT.

On the map, the trail crosses through swaths of minty green vegetation, tepid blue lakes, and expanses of treeless biege. Urgent red elevation likes, sometimes widely spaced, sometimes packed together like the cars of a wrecked train, suggest the ridges, canyons, plateaus, and parapets, like whorls in the thumbprints of God.

Someone with a classical education clearly hand a hand in the place names. Lake Helen of Troy, Thor Peak, and Wotan's Throne - a nod to the pagan Saxon patheon - reek of a 19th-century American college course in world mythologies. The mountain peaks that escaped mythic etymology, like Irvine, Mallory, LeConte, and Barnard, might, depending on your level of cynicism, seem to be a series of monuments to male ego. The water bodies, less elevated in stature, were awarded the more utilitarian, and sometimes more bewitching titles. I submit, for your consideration, Lucys Foot Lake and Millies Foor Lake, neither one of which resembles a foot, even in poor lighting. I smell a story here, but there is no one to explain it.

Even good maps have their quirks, some inherited and some newly minted. All flowing water in the John Muir Wilderness, for example, whether it drips or gushes, is called a creek, and is represented by a blue thread of exactly the same size. You won't know whether to expect Niagara Falls or a mud puddle until you get there. Some clusters of lakes are not named, but dubiously numbered - Cottonwood Lakes 1, Cottonwood Lakes 2, and so on -- and one can almost hear the onset of a creative drought. Naming things is fun at first, but eventually it gets rather tedious. Many lakes have no name at all. Harrison cannot be blamed for aquatic misnomers, but I might just send him an angrily worded missive about apostrophes. In spite of their other considerable virtues, Harrison maps have an infuriating tic of doing away with all apostrophes in place names (like Lucys Foot and Millies Foot), as though there were a national shortage of punctuation marks.

Maps, it must be said, do a very difficult thing. They take a three-dimensional landscape, a set of vast, nearly limitless horizons, rock and water, sand and glacier, that changes by the season, and it condenses it all into an 8 x 11, tri-color, one-dimensional representation, something that can be folded, rained upon, dropped in the mud, and easily read by the shaking flashlight of a hiker lost in Grizzly country at dusk. That's asking an awful lot. It's no wonder then, then a map cannot tell you everything about a trail, any more than a chapter outline can tell you about a novel. The Tom Harrison maps, for instance, nestle Mt. Whitney cozily in the heart of the John Muir Wilderness, and you would never know that Josiah Whitney and John Muir came down on opposite sides of a major scientific debate and cordially hated each other's guts.

III. 'A Mere Sheepherder'

A shepherd's lot is rarely envied, and for good reason. Imagine traipsing through all weather in care of a bunch of animals most noted for their reckless stupidity, away from the human contact that keeps a person sane. But the job comes with excellent compensation. Shepherds have time! Time to contemplate the flights of stars and the heart of God. Time to receive wonder. It was a shepherd who was ushered to the manger-side. It was a shepherd who hurled stones into the cave at Qumran, heard the shatter of pottery, and unearthed the Dea Sea scrolls. And it was a shepherd who stumbled with his motley flock onto Yosemite's starling vistas and thought, without a trace of blasphemy, "My God."

John Muir was born in 1838 in Dunbar, Scotland, one of eight children. His family emigrated and established a farm in Wisconsin. Muir studied intermittently at the University of Wisconsin and became an industrial engineer in Indianapolis. A factory accident almost cost him his eyesight, and he vowed to spend the rest of his sighted days on things he counted worth seeing. He started walking. A thousand miles later, he ended up in Florida. He would have liked to continue on to South America, but he was stricken with malaria and wound up in San Francisco. Someone told him about a valley that lay to the east, a placed called Yosemite.

No person of feeling will deny that places have personalities, or at the very least, their our minds interact with them not only as backdrops, but as sentient beings. Why else, when an airplane lands in a new city, would the feeling be so much like a first date, and why would they stir our blood to admiration or repugnance, and fill us with sorrow at leaving? Once in a great while, I think, a man is destined for a country not his own, and when he finds it, the whole universe is glad. Such was the meeting of Muir and Yosemite. His first High Sierra trip lasted eight days, but like one tethered, he stayed in the Sierra foothills, working on ferry boats, in saw mills, on ranches.

In May 1869, a sheep rancher hired Muir to care for his flocks in the Yosemite Valley. Muir spent that summer becoming enamored of the spires and valleys, laying the foundations of an intimate fondness for the wilderness that would last until his death in 1914. He belonged in a class with Emerson and Thoreau, the American Romantics. His prolific writings sound less like those of a phlegmatic naturalist, someone who might detail the needles of a bristlecone pine, and far more like those of a religious ecstatic, or someone in the thralls of romantic infatuation. His love spurred him to share and preserve the wonders he enjoyed by starting the Sierra Club (still one of America's preeminent environmental groups), encouraging legislators to protect the wilderness for posterity, and helping the American public to value nature beyond what could be cut or stripped from her.

During that fateful summer, Muir also developed the theory that glaciers had carved out the Yosemite Valley. His ideas clashed with the accepted wisdom of the California state geologist, one Josiah Whitney, for whom Mt Whitney was named. Falling somewhat short of the tandard of civil scientific discourse, Whitney dismissed the college-educated Muir as an "ignoramus" and "a mere sheepherder." He defended his own theory, that Yosemite had been created during a cataclysmic earthquake, right to his deathbed, and his official reports suppressed evidence that supported Muir's glacial theory. (Perhaps Whitney had reason to be so onerous. He was made the state geologist in 1860 at once began a serious scientific survey of the entire state. The state legislature, which was actually only interested in further gold discoveries, took away all of his funds in 1868, stripping him of all but his title.)

Today, geologists have taken sides with the sheepherding ignoramus.

A young, Yale-educated geologist by the name of Clarence King discovered California's largest active glacier during a survey of Mt Shasta. He named it Whitney Glacier, in honor of his friend and patron. While he was well aware of the Muir-Whitney debates, the irony of the name seems to have escaped him completely.

After Muir's death in 1914, members of Congress voted for the construction of the John Muir Trail across the High Sierras.
Encumbered by World War I and the Great Depression, to say nothing of the punishing terrain, the trail was not completed until 1938.

IV. Something Keen and Thirsty

I've never been very good at change. Just ask my mother. When I was twelve, she dyed her hair red, and I was inconsolable. I've gotten better, of course, as I've gotten older, and as my life has reeled like a ship in heavy seas, but a lack of consistency is still the failing I find hardest to forgive in myself or others.

But there is another part of me, a vexing, uncontrolled part, that calls for movement, for shores I have not seen, for the challenge and solitude of a long journey. All my favorite stories, whether from Tolkien or Lewis, Bunyan or Hurnard, are about such peregrinations, and in part they have planted my wanderlust, but I suspect, for the most part, they have awakened something deep and native, something keen and thirsty.

My life is a sedate one. I work in an office. My cat, opposed to any movement, stretches her langurous orange flank over my lap, puts a propietary paw of my elbow, and falls asleep while I type at home. Though we don't do it as often, Bethany and I will still ocassionally light a candle, put on the tea kettle, and read the Chronicles of Narnia until we fall asleep. But whenever I am discontented, I feel an urgent need to fly away, whither I hardly know, but let it be some place where I can wrap myself in the infinitely gracious company of trees and air that smells of untrammelled green. All through the fall and winter, I secreted myself into the Shenandah Valley, regardless of the ice. The trees, though bare, were stately and kind, the ridges always blue. So long as I kept walking, the sadness did not consume me, and cheerful thoughts wandered with my feet along the switchbacks. So long as I walked, my grief stayed back from me. Only it was never long enough.

My grief needed a project, an memorial outpouring. I remembered a photograph of my father wearing an external frame backpack, kneeling with his teenage buddies besides a brown national park sign with yellow block lettering. They were on their way from Lake Tahoe to Yosemite, a distance of 83 miles. I also remembered my mother's stories of climbing Mt Whitney with my Grandpa Jack, marine officer and outdoorsman extraordinaire. He died unexpectedly of a heart attack at 59, soon after my fourth birthday. He comes to my mind as a vague, kind, salty presence, adorned with my mother's love of him, her sense of loss. I have always mourned him privately, searched for him, certain that we would have been great friends, that he would have understood that thing in me that longed to be alone to escape its loneliness, that he would have taught me lovely secrets. When I decided to find a project, there were the High Sierras, waiting for me. There was the John Muir Trail, a condensation of notions dear and sacred. I would hike it. I would pour into each footstep my love and confusion and anger and longing, and I would leave them all up there, taking from the woods their balm.

Once it presented itself as a solution, it quickly became a goal bordering on compulsion, one not easily swayed, yet I barely understood it. When anyone asked why I must go so far, alone, so soon, I felt a disproportionate defensiveness, almost an anger, as though asked to explain why I must breathe or drink or sleep.

V. Material Considerations

The thought of the John Muir Trail, exertion in uncluttered space!, pulled me through many a weary day. Not only would I be away from the office, trading the chirp of my phone for the murmur of water, but it was the only trip of such ambitious duration that I could take and stay within the confines of my budget. Lodging is free when you carry your hotel room on your back. But let no one be deceived. As you know if you have ever so much as camped in your backyard, even trips born out of a spiritual necessity has its wealth of material considerations. When the trip takes on a grander scope, like the John Muir Trail, well! Let me just say that Belgium has been invaded with less logistical forethought.

If you really want to know everything that I packed (and I doubt you do), you can refer to "The Things I'll Carry", an earlier post. Suffice to say that I spent months getting myself in shape, making absurdly detailed lists, and measuring my equipment to the gram with a small chef's scale. The story of just a few items will give you a nice flavor of the trail, with its joys and perils.

The Shovel:
One's readiness for outdoor adventuring can be measured by a simple test: are you bothered by the lack of facilities to meet the demands imposed by your excretory system? If the answer is yes, you had better rent a nice cabin at a lake somewhere. If the answer is a "no" and a grin, then you are ready to launch into the uncharted regions. Usually, you can get along fine with some hygienic paper and a bright orange shovel (conveniently calibrated to indicate the mandatory 6-inch depth for waste disposal.) The area surrounding the Whitney Portal, however, subject to such high traffic, recently instituted a mandatory waste removal policy. "Pack it in, pack it out," the backpacker's ethic, has taken on an entirely new, odoriferous dimension. Last season, the National Park Service's website is proud to announce, wilderness revelers packed out an estimated 3,700 pounds of . . . material.

The Bear Vault:

There are two species of bear in the contiguous United States: the grizzly bear (ursus horribilis) the black bear (ursus americanus). The massive grizzly, weighing as much as a small car, has earned a reputation as a fearsome carnivore. When charging, it can attain speeds of 40 miles per hour. If a grizzly starts to chase you in an open space, don't run. Crouch down on the ground, cover your neck and face with you arms, and hold very still. So far as I can see, the logic of this advice is that whether you run or not, the grizzly is still going to eat you, so theres no point in overexerting yourself or the bear. While the grizzly bear does appear on the state flag, it was hunted to extinction in California in the 1920's. All bears in California are now representatives of the grizzly's milder little brother, the black bear. Adult black bears, weighing in at between 250 and 800 pounds, are still nothing to be trifled with, but they tend to be reclusive, if not wimpy, in their direct contact with alert humans. But they will do absolutely anything to eat your food.

It used to be that if you wanted to keep your victuals safe from Yogi and his nefarious pals, you tied put your food in a bag, tied the bag up with a rope, and used a rock to throw the other end of the rope up a tree. Next, you hauled your food bag up to at least twelve feet over the ground and several feet from the trunk of the tree, tied it off with the rope, and went to sleep with the serenade of crickets. This was called counterbalancing, and it seemed to work well. But time passed, and whether the bears got smarter or the humans got dumber, it's hard to say. Counterbalancing is no longer sufficient in many areas. As a case in point, I heard the following story from John, a hiker on the trail: Twenty years ago, as a boy scout, John traveled along the JMT with his troop. They used the tried-and-true counterbalance to store their food, and being good scouts, I doubt they skipped any of the steps. In the middle to the night, the camp awoke to strange and awful noises. John emerged sleepily from his tent to find a sow bear (such are the females called) standing on her hind feet, with her young cub standing on her shoulders, swinging at the food bag as though it were a pinata. At campgrounds, campers are ardently encouraged to remove all food and scented food from their cars, since one of the bears' favorite stunts is to smash the windshield, clamber into the backseat, remove food, and force their way out through the trunk. Try explaining that one to your insurance agent after you mistakenly leave cherry-flavored chapstick in the cup holder.

For the protection of bears and humans alike, bear-proof canisters are now required for the entire length of the John Muir Trail. Recently, though some types of bear canisters have been prohbited in the Rae Lakes region of Kings Canyon National Park because the bears have figured out how to open them. One hopes the knowledge isn't spreading.

Altitude Sickness Medication:
La Paz, Bolivia, perched in the Andes at 12,000, feet is the highest capital city in the world. Unsuspecting foreign travelers are prone to experience a range of uncomfortable symptoms: shortness of breath, fatigue, headaches, nausea, dizziness, and interrupted sleep, something like a hangover without the alcohol. These are the early signs of altitude sickness, or acute mountain sickness. As altitude increases, symptoms progress to vomiting, incapcitating weakness, ataxia (inability to walk a straight line - a bad thing on a mountain pass), disorientation and disrupted judgment, swelling and bleeding of the lungs, unconsciousness, and even death.

While acute mountain sickness it well documented, doctors are a long way from fully understanding it. Some travelers might become seriously ill, and others not at all. It helps to be physically fit and well-hydrated, but the affliction is like a tornado, randomly striking some and sparing others. A patient might experience it on one trip to high altitude, but be fine on the next trip.

At least two factors are responsible: 1) The greater the distance from sea level, the lower of the oxygen saturation of the air we breathe. Each breath we draw brings considerably less oxygen to the lungs, increasing the cardiovascular workload, so that you can be at rest and feel like you just ran a marathon. During sleep, when the cardiovascular system slows down even further, you can experience oxygen deprivation and wake up with a sensation of suffocation. 2) As air pressure changes at high altitude, the brain actually begins to swell, leading to all sorts of unpleasant cognitive affects.

The human body, marvelous machine that it is, can (within limits) compensate for the physiological stresses of high altitude, just as if you reset the thermostat in your house, but it requires time to do so. Thus, rapid changes in altitude are associated with increased symptoms. When time permits, wilderness doctors recommend allowing time for acclimitization.

I didn't have much time for acclimitization, so I did the next best thing. I visited a general physician and asked for Diamox, a prescription anticoagulant to help my body adjust to altitude. I had an appointment at 2:30 and sat in the waiting room for three hours. I made it through two back issues of Time magazine. The last patient in the office, I was seen at 5:45. The doctor talked to me for three minutes, hastily wrote me a prescription, and sent me on my way. It was only five days until my departure. I was too euphoric to be annoyed.

VI. Sallying Forth

The last days before my departure swept by in a blur. I shipped a package of food to myself, to be picked up at the Muir Trail Ranch, a facility that will hold your package for an extortionate fee. My satellite phone arrived.

The satellite phone, adding an extra pound of weight with accessories, was not on my original packing list, but it was a concession made to familial sanity. To put it mildly, there was a general lack of enthusiasm about my trek, once I was certain to be going it alone.

My flight left from Baltimore at 6 am on Saturday, July 14. The Baltimore airport is not accessible by public transportation at that hour, and a taxi would have cost nearly as much as my plane ticket, so I called a Super Shuttle van. I am generally not a fan of Super Shuttle. They won't pick you up less than four hours before your flight, and then they take you for a naseauting tour of the district while they stuff the van with other semi-comatose passengers. I did once get a free ride from a Super Shuttle van. They usually take credit cards, something I was counting on, not having cash, and the driver did not tell until he dropped me off that his credit card machine was broken. He seemed to think this was my fault, but I digress.

With ample historical reason to fear missing my flight, I did not go to sleep before my pick-up. I tried to straighten up around the apartment, double-checked my gear, and got dressed in my hiking clothes, the only clothing that I would be taking with me. The van driver called me on my cell phone to say, repeatedly "Whereruaimcoming!", as though it were some secret password, and it took me a while to figure out that he wasn't speaking Pashtu, so I went downstairs to wait. Even at this improbable hour, the air was thick and warm, tense between the heat of the day before and the day to come. I propped my chin in my hands, sat on the curb, and tried not to fall asleep.

The driver came, and I was whisked off on one of those unpleasant circuits through Virginia, the District, and obscure Maryland suburbs for the other passengers. I dozed off and woke up an hour later just as we arrived at the terminal.

I had shoved my pack into a monstrous blue duffle, the same "body bag," purchased at a Quonset hut that called itself a hunting store, that has been serving me well for a decade of misadventures foreign and domestic. My bear canister, which I carried on the outside of my pack, would not fit it in the duffle, so I had to detach it and carry it around the airport as my carry-on luggage. With the heavy-duty hiking boots and my sun-bleached bandana, I was the spitting image of a runaway from a survivalist cult, something called the 2nd Amendment People's Armageddon Militia. I checked my bag, wondered fleetingly what I would do if the airline lost my bag, and shuffled off to find my gate, bear canister firmly in arm. You should have seen the looks I got from the security people. Miraculously, I thought, I was not selected for additional screening. Come to think of it, I have only been singled out when I was at my most innocuous. Perhaps that's the strategy - to only persecute the people who seem to blend.

My United Airlines flight took me to Los Angeles, where I landed after five hours and two enthralling crossword puzzles. In Los Angeles, I needed to call Anne and let her know that my flight was on time. Satellite phones are spectacular things. The model that I carried in my bear canister, an Iridium XYZPDQ2000-double "o" 7, etc, etc, can field calls from anywhere on the planet, but you have to be outdoors. I frolicked all over LAX, trying in desparation to find a single space with a clear view of the sky. All of the glass was double-paned, too thick for any signal to penetrate. I was on the point of giving up until I found a crowded outdoor smoker's lounge. Eureka! I unscrewed the bear canister lid (always a lengthy production), whipped out the satellite phone, which looks exactly like a cellular phone from 1991, and connected with Anne. Anne was driving down from Tulare, where she was doing an internship in livestock raising at the UC Davis extension, a program funded by the pharmaceutical giant, Pfizer, of all things. When I last spoke with her, she was feeling anxious about an expected shipment of hundreds of calves from New Mexico, all of which would need to branded and have their blood drawn. The John Muir Trail does not scare me a bit. Two hundred calves from New Mexico would scare the living daylights out me. Anne was just about to leave Tulare on schedule. All things according to plan, for the moment.

I left the ostracized smokers to their nicotine comforts and went back to my gate. I had fallen asleep on the LA-bound flight, during which time my neck wound itself into a pretzel, so I added to my aura of general weirdness by testing out extravagant stretching poses. A little girl watched me from across the terminal, caught between curiosity and horror.

After a few more hours, I boarded a SkyWest puddle jumper for the friendly but unacclaimed Inyokern Airport, a facility notable for its proximity to nothing in particular - but it was the closest I could get to the start of the JMT. The flight from Los Angeles to Inyokern took less than an hour. I watched, transfixed, while the landscape fell away, first the ocean, then the clotted freeways, then the repetivie hunks of suburban development, then the rural houses and dirt tracks. Almost as soon as we had reached our highest altitude, we began to descend again. The baked-earth brilliance of Red Rock Canyon flashed beneath us, rocks split with stingy strands of vegetation. It was here, as the ground drew closer, that I felt my first pang of hesitation, the realization that there was no turning back.

VII. "The Sunshine Capital of the USA"

The little plane jounced to a halt on the runway at Inyokern. The passengers descended via a rickety set of movable stairs that was brought alongside the door. Outside the plane, I was assaulted by a wave of desert heat, a moistureless heat like opening the door of an oven. There was no terminal building. The passengers, all of whom seemed to be intimately familiar with the airport, moved en masse to an area surrounded by a chain-link fence, where a decrepit, sun-blistered table hunched gloomily on the asphalt. Two amazingly buff women tossed the luggage onto the table. This was baggage claim. I wandered to a bench in front of the Avis building. Its door opened ocassionally, emitting puffs of cool, conditioned air. I wrenched my pack out of the duffle bag and reattached the bear canister. An old man sidled up next me. His baseball cap said, "PCT: Mexico to Canada."

"You from Massachusetts?" he inquired hopefully in a thick accent straight from Boston's North Shore. "I saw the patch," he continued gesturing to my pack. My pack is encrusted with dozens of fabric patches from the places I have wandered - Nicaragua, Corfu, Florence, Hawaii, Macedonia, and Massachusetts as well.

I shook my head, sorry to disappoint, but in compensation told him about the hike up Mt. Cardigan after Thanksgiving, the closest I had ever come to actually hiking in Massachusetts.

He smiled congenially, pleased to be talking about hiking. Hikers are a wonderful lot, friendly and helpful to their own. It's as though the extent of their solitude has condensed the finer points of their humanity, and they must expend twice the normal warmth on every human interaction to make up for it.

He explained how he had retired in 2001 and hiked the Appalachian Trail (invariably called the AT in backpacking parlance), a 2,100 mile stroll in the woods from Georgia to Maine. He decided to tackle to PCT in 2007. He informed me that he had been hiking since May.

"Won't make it this year," he intoned mournfully. "Had to take a break."

"Oh?" I said politely.

"Son got married," he explained with obvious annoyance.

To change the subject, I told this robust retiree about my plans to hike the JMT in 21 days, a middling time allotment. He congratulated me and wished me well.

I called Anne to find out where she was. Mapquest had led her astray in some distressing lunar landscape, and the transmission of her truck was getting fidgety, but she was on her way, so I let myself bake on the bench for the next hour, reading up on the finer points of orienteering with GPS coordinates.

Anne pulled up in the airport parking lot, uncertain that she had actually found the airport. She bounded out of the truck, gave me a hug, and helped me stow my gear in the back. She had an apple waiting for me in the front seat. Brilliant, that girl is! Anne and I weren't friends in high school. I knew peripherally that she existed because she dated someone on the cross country team. After I graduated from college, I spent six weeks with her that included a partial ascent of Mt Olympos and several ill-considered forays into the countryside of former Communist countries. Anne would drive me to the trailhead, camp with me the first night, and leave me on the second day. I could think of no one better with whom to start my pilgrimage.

With no one else to trust, we turned once again to the Mapquest maps, trying to figure out, under the glaring midday sun, which way on the highway would take us north. After only one wrong turn, we figured it out, and set off through Ridgecrest, proud home of the Inyokern Airport and, according to a fatigued road sign, the "sunshine capital of the USA." Ridgecrest was a town slowly expiring. It was filled with desolate gas stations, houses with the charm of miniature airplane hangars, derelict shops that sold liquor AND tires AND fresh jerky, Wild West-themed RV parks unchanged since the days of their glory.

We pulled out of Ridgecrest and drove through unpeopled country to the Interagency Services Center, the wilderness permit hub of the southern High Sierras, on the edge of Lone Pine and the trail.
VIII. Abbott of the Wilderness

Leaving Anne to rest her eyes in the car, I strode into the station, expecting to pick up my permit and go along my merry way. A friendly ranger pulled my record out of a computerized system. He was a youngish guy, with a prickly shaved head of hair that would have been black. He exuded boredom and unexpended energy. He noted my plans to hike the whole JMT. He asked where I was from and what I did. He confided conspiratorially that he had gone to college at the University of Maryland, and after that he regarded me as an acquaintance of long standing, apologetic about the bureaucratic hoops demanded of him by his authority.

"I'll need to know where you're staying," he said.


"Every night."

"Until Happy Isles?"

"All 21 nights. If we have to do a search and rescue, it will help us know where to look."

I trudged back to the car, fished out my itinerary, and presented it to the ranger, and hoped that he would just make a photocopy and let me go. Not so. The information had to be entered into his tempermental system, one which unfortunately did not recognize the names I had written down. The ranger produced a map as large as a doorframe, and we spent the next twenty minutes making my itinerary match up with places that the computer would recognize.

That chore dispensed with, he took me through the wilderness 'thou-shalt nots:'

Thou shalt not leave any trace.
Thou shalt not build fires above 10,000 feet.
Thou shalt not build furniture out of logs and boulders ("People actually do that!" he confided with an incredulous lift of his bushy eyebrows.)
Thou shalt not feed, heckle, or otherwise disturb the wildlife.
Thou shalt not -- and here he grew very dour indeed, an abbot of the wilderness, warning me, the neophyte, against the mortal peril of fleshly temptations -- I repeat, thou shalt not sleep in the alpine meadows!

Once I had promised most sincerely not to pet the black bears of pitch my blasphemous tent in any virgin meadows, he stamped my permit, drew me a map of the street route to the trailhead, and wished me luck. I went back to the truck to find Anne sound asleep in the driver's seat.
Range of Light

What a figure the mountains made, humbling the valley floor like the ranks of a massive army encamped for invasion, reposed in stength, thick with threat and promise! (Forgive the purple prose; when I talk about mountains, I can't seem to help myself.) Anne steered up the winding road, coaxing the recalcitrant truck for several miles. The sky suggested rain.

We parked at the traihead, removed anything from the truck that might possibly tempt a bear, and made one last stop an actual outhouse. It stank like roadkill three days dead, and there was no toilet paper. I'll take a tree any day, thank you very much.

After locking the truck, we stepped onto the trail, a single, red, dusty track in well-spaced stands of pine. I felt springy. I felt like singing. My journey had begun at long, long last. Not wanting to embarrass Anne, I refrained from singing. Instead, I chatted her ear off in ragged, breathless sentences, while my pulse thrummed in aggravated protest against the altitude. Though the terrain was not particularly challenging, rolling up and down, we made little progress that first night, not more than a few miles. We had been delayed at numerous points in the afternoon, and I had to stop several times to adjust my pack. I was also battling jetlag, sleep deprivation, and hunger. We called it an early night at some unnamed point, just uphill of the trail in a sandy opening. We pitched Anne's two-man tent, explored a bit up the hill (an expedition quickly cut short by complaining lungs), and swallowed some dry provisions. We crept into the tent, exhausted, and unrolled our sleeping pads and bags. We vowed to step outside to see the sky arrayed in stars, but we both fell asleep before dark and did not wake until dawn.

The Mountains and I

Anne and I packed up in the morning. After another meal eaten squatting on the stones, we prayed for each other, like we always do. We said good-bye. I gave her some things to pack out for me. We traded sleeping pads because hers was lighter. We promised to see one another when I returned. She tromped down the hill, the way we had come. The bed of pine needles absorbed her footfalls, leaving neither mark nor sound. The woods veiled her outline, and the sound of water in the meadow below floated up with greater strength. I was alone.

I confess that the first few days on the trail have rolled into one, impressionistic memory. Rainclouds that threatened, spattered a few drops, and then moved on. Boulder fields that stretched on and on, with tortured trails carved between them by the force of some man's will, piling themselves into mountains. Alpine lakes, appearing without notice in a land of gorgeous, barren nothingness, cold and gently dimpled, while the sky contemplated its own cloudless complexion in their mirror gazes. Trees, embracing the earth, splitting stones, growing for heaven with infinite patience, unless, perchance, the lightning burns them and they fall in a charred wreck like sleek, black crocodile skin. Coyotes loping like incarnate shadows in a valley of spilled twilight. Marmots, lords of meadow and cairn, calling with shrill voices, noting my passage without the least concern.

My first night alone, I was lonely, but as though I had wrestled with a demon in the dark, by morning I was glad and contented. I thought long, meandering thoughts, about God and the mountains, about Muir. About how enough solitude could drive you crazy, if you waited too long, but how just enough will keep you sane.

I went up staggering passes whittled in the mountains, places where the trail seemed to appear out of fantasy, where a mountain goat might balk. I went across sandy flats, and into the low valleys that mark the ancient march of glaciers. I learned to recognize three things: 1) when you are very thirsty, and your canteen is almost empty, the teasing of wind in the treetops sounds excruciatingly like flowing water; 2) sitting on a log with a fully loaded backpack is doomed to failure - you WILL roll of the back; 3) there is no sight on this earth half so satisfying as mosquitos bouncing off my DEET-coated limbs; they ricocheted beautifully, as if whacked by invisible tennis raquets.

I had a few misadventures that were not life-threatening. No matter how much sunscreen I put on, I sweated it off almost immediately, and I was soon aching with the sort of burns that make a dermatologist cringe, and I could feel my lips splitting open. More significantly, on the second day, I was adjusting my pack on the second day (word to the wise, don't readjust you pack on a mountain pass), when my sleeping pad (or more precisely, Anne's sleeping pad), went plummeting into an abyss from which I had no hopes of retrieving it.

It was always a special treat to run into other hikers. Almost no one was travelling in my direction, but many passed me going south. At noon on the second day, I heard rumors of a family with three small children, aged 6, 8, and 9, and all carrying packs, headed northbound on the JMT. That night I passed them as they cheerfully camped around their fire.

Things Go Wrong

On the afternoon of the third day, I got my first bloody nose. Having nothing else to use, I stopped it with my bandana, and then, with a little repulsion, stuck it back on my head. On the evening of the third day, I went to bed with a splitting headache, which I sincerely hoped was not the start of altitude sickness. I drank a lake's worth of water, took some Advil, and went wearily to bed. I woke up feeling a bit better and traipsed to a creek to filter my water for the day. The dawn was chilly. My fingers stumbled. I accidentally dumped out the water- twice. I headed back to my tent, not in the best of spirits, packed up and prepared to head out. Within a few steps, I felt nauseated. I tasted metal. I was congested. After another quarter of a mile, my headache returned, as though it had some unfinished grudge, and I developed a fever.

If I'd felt this way at home, I would have called in sick to work, lounged on the couch, and taken comfort in Honeydew's extravagant purring, or possibly some Ben & Jerry's. But at 11,000 feet, in midsummer heat, with 40 pounds on my back and 10 miles to hike, the world looked increasingly grim. I soldiered up a pass that morning and through a sandy flat that ground painfully upward, hot as a baking sheet fresh from the oven. I stopped for a rest every quarter of a mile. My nose shot raspberries three times that morning, each one leaving me woozier and weaker than the last. My bandana, stained crimson stood straight up with the acculumated starch. I wanted (oh, how I wanted!) to pretend that this would pass, but at 11,000 feet, I could feel my strength ebbing, even I could only be so stubborn. Even if I felt better in a few days, I had no hope of making up enough mileage to finish on schedule. I pulled out the satellite phone and called in the cavalry. I told my mom that I was sick and coming out early, and we arranged to talk again that night and arrange the details.

I dragged myself through the rest of the day in a sort of daze, stopping with infuriating frequency to rest, drink water, and fume about ow little mileage I was waking. But I never fumed long; the woods were too majestic for a toxic mood. But I do think the fever, or perhaps the extended solitude, addled my senses a bit. The wind and the water began to sound like music to me. Gales at play in the mountain pinnacles came to me like Gregorian chants, of a rock opera theme without irony. I firmly believe that such would the music of the mountains be, like the anthems of total despots, raised by their charisma and power beyond pity or self-reflection. Hitler or Mussolini in stone. In the smiling split faces of boulders I saw Guernica. In slumped, rotting trees, in bushes, I hoped idly for human forms. That night, I was visited by a ghost.

Muir's Visitation

That night, as darkness encroached fast on the forest, I flung up my tent indifferently in a sandy wash-out. I stashed my bandana in the bear canister, afraid that the blood my prove too intriguing for a passing large mammal, and rolled it further from sleeping place than usual.

From around the next bend in the trail, with a bounding step, came a late hiker with the steel-drum chest and pencil legs of a mountain devotee.

From a distance, he hallooed my camp, asking if there were any decent nooks further along. I answered him and kept fiddling with the my rain cover, expecting him to continue on his way. But he didn't. He left the trail, sauntered into the washout, and seemed in every way prepared to have a nice conversation, as though I had invited him to tea. The dark was no deterrent. I had pepper spray for such ocassions, but I never thought of fetching it. No one could have been less intimidating.

He started chatting pleasantly in a thick Scottish brogue, with a perpetual smile that deepend the bevels around his eyes. He was doing the whole trail in a brisk fifteen days. With any luck, he would summit Whitney in another day or so. His eyes gleamed at the prospect.

He asked my name. I told him. This was also his wife's name, which he found to be a thrilling coincidence.

I told him my predicament - that I was taking blood thinners (like Advil) to control my fever and headaches, but the blood thinner were causing nosebleeds.

Nori, as he called himself, nodded in commiseration.

"I've hiked me all over France, Italy, Scotland ("of course" he added, aside). Once I was up in Spain and I came doon with a 104-degree fever. I had to hole up in a refuge in the mountains for two days. They were going to send a heli-copter fer me."

"What happened?" I asked.

"Oh, well now, I walked oot."

Of course you did, I thought to myself.

"I'm a nurse back in Scotland," he announced, to my complete shock, at which point he took off his Golightly (a sublime little pack that weighs only a pound) and produced a two-day supply of tablets for me to take, something available only in the UK that reduces fever and pain without thinning the blood. He instructed me on how to take them, then sealed up his pack, said good-bye, and disappeared around the next bend.

A moment later, his voice floated back to me.

"I fergoot to tell ya," he yelled, "Make sure to take it with a wee bit'a food so it doesn't upset yer tummy!"

I assured him I would. I knew at once that the encounter was providential. It didn't occur until I while later that my benefactor was probably the ghost of Muir, that first amiable Scotsman, or so I'd like to think.


Afterwards, I called Justin, who was at the base of Kings Canyon, preparing to enter for his scheduled portion of the trail. He would enter until he hit the JMT and hike southward until he found me. I would continue north and try not to pass out.

The next morning, strengthened a little by providential British medication, I crossed Tyndall Creek and Bighorn Plateau, where the mountains rose around me black and fierce, fantastical minarets, pirahna-jaw ridges, their flanks littered with slipping stone. It is extraordinary to see how the mountains have decayed, falling inward, and to think they were once taller and grander. I went through the ordeal of getting my throwaway camera from my pack, only to discover that it had broken.

From there, I tackled to relentless ascent to Forester Pass, five miles of steady climbing through an open, wind-hassled space, infested with marmots and the skeletons of bristlecone pine, which can last for 7,000 years (the trees, not the marmots). I lost the trail here and had to descend to ask directions from some backpackers bivouacked by the creek. They were sunburned and contented. They had passed me in the morning as I broke down camp. They sent me back the way I had come, so I pushed up the grade again. I knew that I could never make it over the pass, a dizzying 13,200 feet, before dark, but I pressed along as far I could. There was almost no place to camp, and the wind picked up. Mountain clouds, generated by the pass's own micro-climate, frisked against a sky turning rose-coloured, and fog piled up against the far side of the range, though it must have been hundreds of miles away. I found the only spot I could, shielded a bit from the wind by some shattered boulders, and fought to set up my tent against the wind. I woke often, aching vaguely with the cold, and bunched my bag over my head.

In the morning, the three hikers passed me again. Even a thousand feet lower, where they had camped, they had woken to frozen water bottles. I described Justin to them, asking them to report my whereabouts if they saw him. They were happy to do the favor, so happy that they gave me their trail names: Riquito, Marmot, and Squirrel. Trail names are yet another fascinating result of hiker subculture. Once in the wilderness, hikers seem to relinquish their normal identities and take on fresh ones. By some unwritten code, you cannot pick your own name. It must arise from the experience of trail. I had no name. The Three Musketeers, as I fondly thought of them, wound up the knife-blade switchbacks, and I prepared to follow them.

Forester Pass was something else. It seemed to fling itself vertically. There was no trail, at times, but only a scrabbling over boulders crusted with lichen and alpine sorrel, blood-red flowers with a brief summer life. Halfway up, there was a plaque dedicated to Daniel Downs, a worker who died in the building of the trail up Forester Pass. It's funny, but you'd think that a man named Downs wouldn't meet his death two miles above sea-level. Stumble in any direction, and it would be only to easy to join him. A little further along, and the center of the trail had eroded, leaving a gap the size o manhole. Through it, I could spy the trail below and the azure border of an alpine lake. Dizzy, spent, and top-heavy with the weight of the pack, I moved on. The trail twisted on itself, and all at once, there was the top. I could see the trail before and behind me for fity miles, falling in all directions. I shouted Whitman's line about resounding yawps, enjoyed the view for a while, and continued north.

Cavalry Charge

At the bottom of the descent, I spotted a bright yellow T-shirt hoofing up the grade. Justin! I say without any exaggeration that I have never been so glad at the sight of another human being.

I raced down to meet him, and to his credit, he displayed no shock, though I smelled like a goat and my face could hace stopped traffic - in a bad way. He had been prepared for the sight by the Three Musketeers. "She's in good spirits," they cautioned him, "but she doesn't look so good."

During a liesurely lunch beside a brook, Justin made a photographic record of my facial disfigurement, and I swallowed as much of his cheddar cheese as my altitude-shrunked stomach would permit. We packed up again, and going downhill all the way, we made good progress to East Vidette Meadow and camped early alongside a creek with a bear box (a steel chest for foodstuffs).

That night, we made a fire and enjoyed Mountain Man beef stroganoff straight from the bag. Heaven. The thirteen minutes that it took for the powdered cheese to congeal were some of the longest in my life. John, a neighboring camper, offered me a cup of Darjeeling tea (I had been fantasizing about a cup of tea for 6 days) and joined us at the fire. He was a super-hiker intent of finishing the trail in 10 days. That's 23 or 24 miles a day. Upon hearing this, I had to reflect for a time on whether to revere or hate him. We talked for an hour about human trafficking, and then for another half hour about structural engineering, of which I understood not a word.

To my delight, John had seen Nori at the summit of Mt. Whitney. After the ascent, John was cold and tired. He admired the view momentarily and then hoped to get off, but Muir's ghost detained him in euphoric conversation. Nori was planning to camp at the summit. John left him just was he was getting all worked up over some Mountain Man instant chicken-and-rice.

The caffeine in the tea kept me up half the night.

Roads End

The next day, Justin and I left the John Muir Trail. We hiked an energetic fourteen miles alongside Bubbs Creek. The elevation plummeted, and we entered a new biosphere, a landscape of lush ferns and lordly, giant sequoias, of manzanitas, with their waxy, oar-shaped leaves and burnished red stems, of pale, blanched aspens, shivering and tittering with senseless delicacy. Every now and then, a rattlesnake crossed the path. Justin would freeze. Then, he would walk on, cautiously, and I would trail him, eyes glued to the ground. I cannot imagine how many thousands more sunned themselves lazily around us. As the blistering afternoon waned, we tramped across two miles of dust to the Roads End trailhead. We collapsed onto a picnic table beside a lodge, momentarily indifferent to anything besides the urge for inertia. After a while, we bathed ourselves in the Kings River, where whole families were frolicking the water like Independence Day at Virginia Beach. We got in the car, turned on the music, and turned the air conditioning to full blast. Civilization is ocassionally glorious.

We stopped at a small convenience store. Justin satisfied a craving for barbecued potatoe chips. I bought another patch for my backpack and a book of postcards.

"What happened to your lips?" said the cashier, with a look in his eyes like someone watching a 1950's horror film, where the heroine has just turned into an enormous lobster.

"Altitude," I said.

One-Hundred Thousand Dollars

For IJM! Please register and vote at rezoom.com to help IJM win $100,000.

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Saturday, August 4, 2007

If you're happy and you know it . . .

. . . leave a comment to this post. It's nice to know who's reading, and where you're reading from.

Grateful for you,


Friday, July 13, 2007

The Land of Beyond


Have ever you heard of the land of beyond,
That dreams at the gates of the day?
Alluring it lies at the skirts of the skies,
And ever so far away;
Alluring it calls: O ye the yoke galls' And ye of the trail overfond,
With saddle and pack, by paddle and track'
Let's go to the Land of Beyond!

Have ever you stood where the silences brood,
And vast the horizons begin,
The goal you would strive for and win?
Yet ah! In the night when you gain to the height,
With the vast pool of heaven star-spawned,
Afar and gleam, like a valley of dream,
Still mocks you a Land of Beyond.

Thanks God! There is always a Land of Beyond,
For us who are true to the trail;
A vision to seek, a beckoning peak,
A fairness that never will fail;
A pride in our soul that mocks at a goal'
A manhood that irks at a bond,
And try how we will, unattainable still,
Behold it, our Land of Beyond

Robert Service